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Blessings and Promises: Now and Then

"Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the meek; blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness."

These words of Jesus are the opening lines of that rich treasure of Matthew's Gospel we know as the Sermon on the Mount. These "beatitudes," as we often refer to them, are Jesus' way of capturing the interest of those who are listening to his preaching.

Just as a preacher in our day will use a clever saying or a cute story to capture the attention of the hearers, Jesus opens the Sermon on the Mount with a series of sayings that would clearly arouse the interest of those who came out to hear him.

Have you considered how odd these words must have sounded to their ears?

"Blessed are the poor in spirit."

Then, as now, few would consider poverty of spirit a blessing; few would discover deep satisfaction in an empty soul.

"Blessed are those who mourn."

That must have sounded odd. Are we to find fulfillment and profound joy at the death of a loved one or the tragic loss of a friend? Are we to deny the painful realities of the lives we live? Are we to sugarcoat the emptiness that gnaws at our insides and pretend, at the peril of our souls, that it really doesn't hurt?

"Blessed are the meek."

You've got to be kidding! Meek? No way! God doesn't bless the timid, the weak, the hesitant, or the fearful. God blesses those who are self-sufficient-the strong, the able, the convincing winners!

Those who first heard these words of Jesus must have puzzled over what Jesus was up to. And Jesus had them right where he wanted them. In the sermon that was to follow, Jesus was going to teach in clear and certain terms what the kingdom of heaven was all about. And claiming a place in that kingdom called for a response here and now.

In the weeks to come, we will hear Jesus' call to become the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Jesus will place before us a new understanding of the law of God and offer us practical wisdom on what it means to live now in response to God's desires.

In the meantime, all of the richness of Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount begins here in these rather oddly worded blessings. Let's look at them again.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit."

Emerging from this blessing is a promise: "Theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

"Blessed are those who mourn."

Emerging from this blessing is a promise: "For they will be comforted."

"Blessed are the meek."

Emerging from this blessing is a promise: "For they will inherit the earth."

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness."

Emerging from this blessing is a promise: "For they will be filled."

These blessings at first sound more like curses until one hears the promise attached to each one. Being poor in spirit is no blessing all by itself, but when attached to the promise, it possesses life-changing power.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

Mourning is no fun and hardly a blessing in and of itself, but attach it to a promise and a whole new meaning unfolds:

"Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted."

"Blessed are the meek" does not mean we sit idly by and wallow in some sort of shallow passivity. Hear the promise:

"Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth!"

It is a promise that locates our strength not in self-assertion or human violence but in the unparalleled power of God.

The blessing of this present time-that deep fulfillment and satisfying inner joy that can be experienced now in the living of our lives--is possible because of the promise to which the blessing is attached.

For the believer it is a "now and then" proposition. As St. Paul framed it, "Now we see through a clouded glass, but then we will see clearly, then we will see face to face."

Have you ever stopped to contemplate how much your life depends upon promises? So many of the daily transactions that provide us with a largely civil and convenient way of life are largely a matter of simple promises:

Drive on the right
Don't break in line.
Be courteous to the elderly.
And watch out for the children.

Even when we enforce such things in laws and rules and manners, at their heart they are really simple promises upon which we all depend.

But, then, there are the big promises -- the promises we make to each other in more intimate ways:

The promises of faithful friendship.
The promises of love and fidelity in marriage.
The promises that bind us one to another.

People of faith are persons who have received, persons who have claimed for themselves -- the promises of God. Of all the things one might consider when one reflects upon God in our lives, we would do well to think of God as a maker of promises. God, the great promiser.

In biblical tradition, God can be seen time and again as a maker of promises:

To Abraham and Sarah and to their descendants who numbered more than the stars of heaven.
From Abraham's call to Moses' leading God's people out of bondage.
From the kings of Israel to the voices of the prophets.

From the coming of Jesus our Savior to the preaching of Paul the Apostle, it all depends upon promise. It all depends on a God who is not only a maker of promises but the God who can be trusted to keep the promises that have been made.

It is not so odd, then, that Jesus would begin his teaching about the practicalities of believing with some beatitudes that connect the living of these present days with the promises of what will be in the kingdom that is coming, the kingdom which we know now only by promise.

Thus far, we have looked only at the first half of the beatitudes that Jesus recites in today's Gospel. As I read the second half again, listen for the promises that Jesus makes.

"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy."
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God."
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God."
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven and in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

Think for a moment of persons who have truly blessed you. Have their lives been lived as people of the promise?

"Blessed are the merciful."

I think of those who have given so unselfishly of their lives in the service of others in the name of Jesus:

Mother Teresa of Calcutta,
or Dorothy Day on the streets of New York,
or Frances Bell, who decade after decade taught children and ran schools in rural Georgia.

They lived the promise, and mercy is their inheritance.

"Blessed are the pure in heart."

I think of those persons who have welcomed me into their lives, not because I had any right to be there, but because the only faithful response they knew to the welcoming arms of God was to welcome others just as openly, just as graciously. They lived the promise and they will see God just as surely as I have seen God in them.

"Blessed are the peacemakers."

I think of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former President Jimmy Carter, and Pope John Paul II, among many others, whose devotion and tireless efforts have made our world a safer place to be. They heard the promise and now and evermore they will be called children of God.

Pick any of the beatitudes and recall those persons known to you who have heard the promise: faithful souls who are prepared to endure whatever the present moment requires of them, because their lives are held in the arms of a God who is a maker of promises-a God who can be trusted to be a keeper of promises.

St. Paul wrote: "The sufferings of this present time are not to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed."

You see, it is a matter of now and then. What we experience now can be a blessing because in God's hands blessings are always attached to promises.

Let us pray.
Holy and gracious God, God of promise and steadfast love, we give you thanks for the teaching of Jesus, your Son and our Savior. For the blessings we enjoy and the sufferings we presently endure, we give you thanks. For the promises by which we live and for the hope of glory we receive in faith, we give you thanks. Give us the sure confidence of your strength in this present time and the grace to await the coming of your kingdom with anticipation and joy. Give us merciful hearts toward others as you are merciful with us, and give us the courage to be peacemakers and reconcilers in all that we do, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.